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Hemi Hunter's Top Fuel Tales

Tales of the Piston Pushers Hot Rod Club

By Gary Peters

The late 40s and 50s were the grass roots times for a bunch of guys to get together and form some kind of club with the focus directed towards the automobile. The goal was to find a clubhouse, preferably a large garage, where the members could work on their hot rods. In 1956 the club in Allentown was formed and was called the Piston Pushers. They found a 12 car garage two blocks from center square. From the outside, it appeared to be a solid brick building. But inside you could see it had been converted from a barn. The corner stone said 1873.

I became a member in the summer of 1959, along with Karl and Tom. We all had plans to build a hot rod that you could drive around town and also race at the tracks known as Drag Strips. Our club had many different members over the years. The members came and went, usually leaving after the wedding ceremonies and children arrived. Dues were collected and the rent was paid. We also tried to have a surplus of funds to buy equipment that all the members could use to build their dreams.

Every function of the club used the democratic system of voting. The new members were all admitted this way and deciding who would get a spot for building his car was voted on also. Back then, not everyone had spare money to build a car, but just by being involved helped the members hang with those who could. Now you can well imagine that getting 25 or 30 guys together would result in some hellish conditions. Like I said, the building was old, and probably was a barn when it was built. It also had a functioning out house inside the building. How the city missed shutting that little gem down was beyond us, but it came in handy, if you were real brave and not faint of heart.

The least desirable spot to have your car was close to the walls covering the toilet. It actually looked like and old fashioned outhouse, all wood with a door on it. Needless to say, the thing was probably not cleaned out for many, many years. Whoever wound up next to it got a reduction in dues. The odor coming from that walled in pit of hell was nothing short of amazing. Some of us would tape all the seams closed to help eliminate the smell. But someone always seemed to have an emergency, and would use it from time to time.

Now this little relic from the past became a major point of amusement to the whole club. New members were always introduced to the monster pit. Believe me, you needed to be exceptionally brave to enter its domain. So we got our heads together to come up with a real unusual game plan to see who was the bravest of the brave. Just down the street was a little steak sandwich shop called Vince's. We all got to know the owner from buying our refreshments from him every night. At one of the weekly meetings, it was decided to use the toilet as a challenge to new club members.

Here was the deal. The club would buy a steak sandwich from Vince's. If you could eat it inside those walls of terror, all the other member's would buy that person his refreshments for the following week. Challenge after challenge was offered, but no one would take it on. That is until a new fellow joined the club. His name was John Locker, and his nickname was Leech. The challenge was offered, and without a blink of an eye, old John entered the outhouse, sat down with the sandwich, closed the door, and ate his steak. For years and years he never bought anything for himself. He became an example to all the new and younger guys who would be the suppliers of the food for John.

The roof of this building was also about 20 feet high. It had beams across its width just like a barn. It was always extremely cold in the clubhouse during the winter. So we thought a little heat might be just the thing. We bought what is called a salamander. You have probably seen them on construction sites. They have about an 8-gallon tub on the bottom, with a 10-inch diameter stack 4 foot high, resting on the top of the tub. You would fill the tub up with about 5 gallons of kerosene and start it to burning. The thing would roar away like a jet engine and turn out some decent heat. It would get this huge garage above 32 degrees. Even at that, it was an improvement. The club thought that an extra dollar in dues would cover the expense of the kerosene.

One Saturday morning Tom and I go down to the club house and decide to start up the stove, go for breakfast until the place warmed up a little, and then do a little work on our cars. It wasn't always an easy thing to do, getting that contraption started. Some of the guys seemed to have a knack for starting the thing. You needed to heat and evaporate the kerosene to start the combustion process. They were known as the fire gods of the hot rod club. I never developed that ability. I always had trouble. That morning seemed to be the exception. I got the thing running, and Tom and I jumped into his car and headed for the dinner.

About an hour later we return to the garage and enter through the door. The whole place is full of white smoke. I don't mean a little white smoke, I mean a lot. You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. The salamander is puffing away with pulses of flames in the tub, and goops of that white smoke pouring from its stack. It was the only thing you could see inside the garage. I carefully walked over to the monster and put my foot on the air vent on the fill cap to the tub. I quickly open and close the vent. The thing backfires, and all of a sudden, the garage fills with a big fireball. It goes out instantly and the air in the garage is as clear as a bell.

Tom tells me a new fire god has been created. He tells me this is good training in case we ever put a blower on any of our race cars. If I keep at it, I should be ready for a little blower explosion now and then. I notice he's looking at me kind of funny. I walk past the mirror hanging on the wall and I stop dead in my tracks. It took about three weeks for my eyelashes and eyebrows to grow back, along with the front of my hair.

A member named George had a 1949 Mercury in one of the spots in the club house. He was going to build a radical car out of it. He cut out all the roof posts on the side and front of the roof. He was going to reinforce the roof and leave it hang out there in space. He was working on this thing for years. I had built three dragsters and raced them and he still wasn't anywhere near completing his project. He had the last spot in the clubhouse, all the way in the rear. He finally drifts away, and his car is still in the garage. We try to contact him, but we cannot find him.

What to do with that 49 Mercury? If we wanted to move it out of the garage, we would need to move 10 other cars to remove his. It was decided that we would unbolt everything and remove it in pieces. Fenders were disappearing along with everything else we could carry, like doors and what was left of the roof. We were down to the engine, an old Flathead Ford. We think that maybe we should pay tribute to the marvel of Ford engineering. Behind the building was a little back yard. We would keep it in fair shape by mowing the grass and cleaning it up now and then.

We decide to bury Henry's invention for all time. We start digging a hole in the ground behind the building. Finally, it's deep enough to accept our sacrifice, that Flathead Ford. Several of us carry it to the hole and set it in with the heads in an upright position. The key here is we didn't just dump her in. We cover it up with the dirt, and make a sign or tombstone that said "Here Lies a 49 Mercury Flathead. Born 1949, died 1967."

I once in a while drive by the old club house. It's still there, looking just as it did 30 years ago. I often wanted to stop and see if the sign is still there. I know no one ever removed the engine. With my luck, I'd probably show up just as the environmental folks would be removing it. I'll think I'll just let it rest in peace.

I look back on the stupid things we did in the old days, and just wonder what the heck we were all thinking. If someone told me today that I had to dig a hole to bury an engine, I'd look at them as if they were crazy. But then again, I learned to take on things in life as a challenge to whatever it was that needed doing. Plus I run into all of the old guys from time to time. We tell each other these stories we've heard many times. We still laugh a lot about the old days. If I knew I needed to form a team to get something difficult accomplished , I would go to these folks to accomplish it. Heck I'd even supply the steak sandwiches until the task was finished.

Gary Peters
gary.peters@macktrucks.com
http://www.hemihunterracing.com

 

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